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Theatre in Review: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Broadhurst Theatre)

Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald. Photo: Deen van Meer

Terrence McNally's plays are amazingly tensile works, able to reshape themselves around wildly varying personalities without losing their fundamental structures. I've seen four markedly different stars -- Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone, Dixie Carter, and Tyne Daly -- essay the role of Maria Callas in Master Class; the play managed to accommodate them all. Similarly, the current Broadway revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is my fourth time (including the film version) with this material; it's fascinating to see how the current stars -- Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon -- slip into their characters' battered souls, finding new shadings and tiny revelations that make them seem freshly conceived.

Was ever a woman in this humor wooed? Was ever a woman in this humor won? One of the principal pleasures of Frankie and Johnny is how McNally takes a faintly preposterous premise and, little by little, convinces us that it is a plausible statement about the redeeming nature of romantic love. It begins with the title characters, co-workers in a Manhattan diner, in bed, enjoying a robust round of lovemaking, followed by a seemingly casual post-coital conversation out of which a marked tension arises. Frankie expects little more than an evening of quick -- and, probably, disposable -- romance, but Johnny has bigger things in mind. He wants her heart and soul, and immediately begins laying plans for a future life together; that this is their first date is to him irrelevant, almost beneath discussion. Alarmed, she tries to get him to leave, but he keeps pressing his case, slowly breaking down her formidable defenses and riskily revealing hard truths about himself, until both are far more naked than when first seen going at it in bed.

McNally has long had the knack of creating characters with distinctive profiles, yet with ample room for customization by the actors playing them. Kathy Bates, the original Frankie, had a pronounced undertone of depression that provided a strong contrast to Kenneth Welsh's almost puppyish yearning. Some felt that Michelle Pfeiffer, star of the film, was too glamorous to portray a long-running loser in love, but her Frankie persuasively displayed a daunting, toughened-by-the-years shell that required all of co-star Al Pacino's wiles to wear down. On Broadway seventeen years ago, Stanley Tucci gave Johnny an antic edge, which made him a worthy antagonist to Edie Falco's cut-the-crap approach as Frankie, informed by blasts of skepticism and seemingly lethal glares.

At the Broadhurst, McDonald, riffing off the fact that Frankie is forever apologizing for something -- she says "I'm sorry" at least a dozen times -- builds her character on a firm foundation of self-deprecation. With arms folded to signal that access has been withdrawn, a mouth curved into an elaborate frown of disapproval over an unimpressive world, and a slightly veiled look that amounts to a cosmic, what-can-you-do shrug, her Frankie is worn down by years of disappointments big and small. McDonald's solid comic technique is put to good use as Frankie scrambles to find a better word than "harrowing" for their lovemaking; frantically races to fill a moment of silence that she requested; or, in a moment of despair, moans of her date-gone-wrong, "This is worse than Looking for Mr. Goodbar." (Johnny's entreaties of love are too rich for her blood; as she notes, "I'm a BLT-down sort of person and I think you're looking for someone a little more pheasant-under-glass.") Yet, under the surface lurks a sea of feelings that are revealed at various moments -- folded into a chair, forming an exhausted, defensive crouch; angrily decking Johnny on the chin for coming too close to the truth about her; or wistfully recalling the grandmother who provided her with her most authentic experience of love. And when she casually, quietly, lets slip that she still dreams of becoming a teacher, we see a woman suddenly, tentatively, getting in touch with her innate decency and the possibility of a life that matters.

In contrast to McDonald's comically exaggerated expressions of angst, Shannon's Johnny pitches from low and inside, deadpanning his lines and giving his frequent rants a kooky, slightly jagged rhythm that lends credence to Frankie's fears that she is harboring some kind of a nut. But his craziness takes an unusually friendly form: Leaning back, in nothing but a pair of shorts, to rail about such social ills as elaborate trailers for obscure film actors and delicatessens with appallingly bright lighting, he already seems to have moved in for good; he is also laying the groundwork for a character who has racked up too many bad decisions and is certain that the woman facing him is his last, best shot at happiness. When, at last, he is reduced to tears, they are in honest recognition that he is "not good with people," adding, sadly, "I can get away with it for long stretches, but I always hang myself in the end." This unornamented approach pays dividends: When McNally's writing threatens to turn a little too colorful, such as when Johnny insists that their children could be "Shakespeare and the most beautiful music ever written and a saint maybe or a champion athlete or a president all rolled into one," it comes off as the real, hard-won wisdom of a man who has seen too much of life. "Nervy and persistent" is Johnny's self-description, and the words fit Shannon's fine work as well.

Indeed, everyone involved seems to know where the play's pitfalls lie and how to avoid them. This sort of two-hander is extraordinarily difficult to pull off, if only because of its sheer predictability: If the characters don't come together for some kind of mutual understanding, there is no play. But in daring to imagine the possibility of an earthly paradise for this pair of aging, ordinary-looking loners, McNally gives them a specificity that keeps the trite and maudlin at bay. He gets strong support from stars who are incapable of too-easy sentiment, and a director, Arin Arbus, who carefully guides this dance of approach and avoidance until, finally, one believes Frankie and Johnny belong in each other's arms, gazing, from a fire escape, on the moon-washed city.

The set designer for any production of Frankie and Johnny must come up with a drab studio-apartment setting, but I'm not entirely convinced by Riccardo Hernández's approach, which dispenses with walls, instead placing an arrangement of furniture against an enormous gray-and-white drop (which bleeds over the proscenium) depicting the exterior of a New York tenement. The overall effect looks oddly unfinished; the play works best, I think, when it unfolds in a more claustrophobic atmosphere, emphasizing Frankie's desire to get Johnny out of her house. In any case, it is lit fluently by Natasha Katz, who contrasts ice-white moonlight with warm lamplit illumination and a blazing sunrise. Emily Rebholz's costumes are true to the characters and the 1980s-era time frame; I especially liked Frankie's mint-green bathroom with pastel appliquéd flowers, which appears to be her one indulgence. A key part of the script is the classical radio broadcast that provides, among other things, the title music, along with a bit of the "Ride of the Valkyries" -- which, to his horror, signals a bout of temporary impotence for Johnny -- and a disc jockey who muses wistfully on love and romance; all of it is delivered by sound designer Nevin Steinberg with his usual professionalism.

And, for all of the fireworks that are allowed to flare during the play's two acts, it ends on a mundane, oddly touching, note that reinforces McNally's sensibility, which detects magic in the details of ordinary living. Morning has broken and Frankie and Johnny are still together; if that's not reason for hope, I don't know what is. --David Barbour


(6 June 2019)

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